Tag Archives: Alex van Warmerdam

LIST CANDIDATE: BORGMAN (2013)

DIRECTED BY:

FEATURING: Jan Bijvoet, Hadewych Minis, Sara H. Ditlevsen

PLOT:  A dangerous group of criminals are lead by a strangely charismatic man named Camiel Borgman, who terrorizes a family after being let into their home.

Still from Borgman (2013)
WHY IT SHOULD MAKE THE LIST:  Dumping dead bodies in a lake and taking a dip right after is weird, but what about strange underground criminals who perform dark ballets on other people’s property just for their own amusement?

COMMENTS: With a keen focus on power and class, Borgman unravels the culture behind malignant societal ills by dissecting its basic unit (the family), citing examples such as sexism, classism, and a general need to be better off than one’s neighbor.  Although he is compared to in numerous reviews, Borgman director Alex Van Warmerdam seems to be less patient, more starkly manical. This makes Borgman full of surprises from start to finish. It’s cohesive and bursting with ideas. It’s fair to say the film’s cerebral aspect alone is completely riveting and preposterously strange, and its characters have a drastic range in their behavior. They can be repulsive, but then they are cool and funny. The maliciousness of Camiel Borgman (Jan Bijvoet) is casual, but it’s not surprising that both he and his companions Ludwig and Pascal (Alex van Warmerdam and Tom Dewispelaere respectively) are given the narrative leverage to pull some laughs while scaring us.

Stine, played by Sara H. Ditlevsen is absolutely beautiful, and Hadewych Minis’ Marina is truly mesmerizing. The way the two female leads cater to the men in the story is erotic but dangerous; we watch as it leads to cruelty. There is a strong and intentionally obvious message concerning the guilt of having too much, of looking out upon society and realizing that you are simply better off than most people, but it’s just an aside. Borgman deals mostly with the eradication of the family unit, a demonstration of how abuse leads to distance and betrayal. Richard (Jeroen Perceval) heads the family and he is a racist misogynist if there ever was one. We watch as his own demons consume him in various forms. There is a plentitude of weird creepiness concerning this family and their interaction with Camiel Borgman and his unusually loyal posse, and it makes for a compelling and mystical viewing experience.

Borgman is incredibly dreamy, and a feeling of almost whimsical, drifting terror is delivered in master strokes. It is relentless. Strangely enough, it does not give the impression that it would make a great midnight movie, or even a good cult film, but that doesn’t stop its strangeness from being potent and penetrating. While seeming to borrow heavily from major independent thrillers like Timecrimes, Funny Games and perhaps even No Country for Old Men (the meticulous and calm way Borgman is shown scraping poisonous resin across a serving bowl), Borgman maintains a freshness that is disturbing, dark, cerebral and exhilarating. It has a chilly and dark atmosphere. The heaviness of small details psychically nestle in your brain just enough to hint at the true malice being shown. The result is magnificent anxiety. Bijvoet’s Borgman is entrancing both because of his extraordinary power over people and his relentless brutality for the sake of an unidentified gain. Only hints are given at the intention behind his and malice, so generalized that it’s ultimately up to the viewer to determine what the true meaning is, if any at all. Bijvoet’s performance has range. He portrays coldness, creepiness, tenderness, and brutality all with equalized vigor. He is calm quiet, powerful, and definitely represents larger concepts.

As for the most important aspect of Borgman to us—its weirdness—the actions of the characters are so ridiculous (and sometimes insidious) that the whole thing ends up being slightly surreal. It is also very comical. The label given by critics for this movie as a straight dark comedy is acceptable here, but there is much more to it than that. The end will have most people scratching their heads, in a good way; it gives the movie great replay value, and it’s almost terrifying in its creepiness. I didn’t much enjoy Dogtooth, the domestic satire most associated with this movie; I found Borgman to be much more exciting in its ability to borrow from so many other movies but still be original. In the end, it was the small details, the humor, the subtlety in performance and image that combined to make Borgman lasting, dark, and really, really weird.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

Filled with surreal touches and shocking scenes of black humor, Borgman steams ahead with the power and inevitability of a nightmare.”–Tirdad Derakhshani, The Philadelphia Inquirer (contemporaneous)

CAPSULE: THE DRESS [DE JURK] (1996)

DIRECTED BY: Alex van Warmerdam

FEATURING: Alex van Warmerdam

PLOT: The scenario follows the lifespan of a woman’s dress, from it’s design to it’s eventual shredding, and the various wearers to whom it brings bad luck.

Still from The Dress (1996)


WHY IT WON’T MAKE THE LIST: The Dress definitely nudges the needle on the ol’ weirdometer every now and then, but they may be false positives, as the movie is filled more with a gloomy quirkiness than true weirdness.

COMMENTS: The dress itself is parrot-blue and covered in abstract leaves of red, gold and orange; it’s eye-catching enough for a summer frock, but it’s not going to be the star of any woman’s wardrobe.  The design is conceived in a moment of desperation and despair, inspired by a street argument; the prototype is created by a pervert.  The women who buy it hope that it might brighten their lives for a brief moment, but it only leads them to sorrow instead.  The plot wanders off Phantom of Liberty style to each new owner of the dress, but perhaps one of the weirdest things about the movie is that it feels neither unified nor fragmented.  From segment to segment, the tone of downbeat drama alternating with bittersweet comedy remains the same, and characters even recur, but there isn’t a strong thread holding the tales together—other than, perhaps, the way they all illustrate the futility of the pursuit of erotic happiness.  Writer/director van Warmerdam gives himself the best role, as a train conductor who becomes obsessed with the wearer of the dress.  He gives the character an effective creepiness, with a sheen of respectability hiding an unhinged romantic who’s darting daringly close to becoming a rapist.  The film exhibits an uncomfortable, though not tasteless or mean-spirited, undercurrent of hostility to the fairer sex.  A wardrobe executive’s wife, and every other woman he encounters, refuses him normal tenderness; in another masculine nightmare, the dress designer’s girlfriend humiliates him with a laundry list of complaints about his manly deficiencies as she’s leaving him, only pausing her harangue momentarily so he can take a threatening call from his irate boss.  To provide balance there is one scene of domestic happiness, scenes where men are cold towards their girlfriends, and many others where men are depicted as vicious, if unsuccessful, predators.  Still, the script, while not exactly misogynist, still feels like might have been written by a jilted lover as self-therapy after a bitter breakup.  It’s a comedy, but the humor is of the nervous titters breaking up tense situations variety. For example, a dangerous argument inside borrowed home is broken up by a common enemy, the returning owner (carrying a shotgun in one hand and a baby in the other, she could have stepped right out of a Dutch John Waters film).  Though they don’t fit together into a movie in a completely satisfactory way, the individual scenes are all well-crafted, acted with nuance and a studied observation of human nature (the characters’ behavior seems real even when its elicited by an absurd stress).  In one bedroom scene, for example, van Warmerdam does an excellent job of convincing us that one of the dress’ owners might actually take a terrible romantic chance on a man. The setup has no right to work, but somehow it doesn’t stick out as merely laughable.  Other memorable scenes include the fashion designer’s startlingly suggested perversion and an exceedingly sad assignation between an old man and a public park prostitute.  Most effective, perhaps, is the make-of-it-what-you-will finale that offers up a matter-of-fact interpretation of the dress’ symbolism—from a professional art critic, no less—then dramatically undercuts the proffered explanation with a puzzling surprise conclusion.

Van Warmerdam has made six features, only half of which are available in the U.S. (and even those can be difficult to find).  Though it’s not great, The Dress is interesting, well-crafted, and original enough that it convinces you that the director may have a great movie in him somewhere.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“I can think of few things more appropriate to call The Dress than absurd. It’s a bizarre comedy with a brand of humor that, despite making fun of normally-serious issues like rape and sexual harassment, can inspire bouts of uncontrolled, politically-incorrect laughter.”–James Berardinelli, Reel Views (contemporaneous)